What an accidental time trip: at Mama’s Buoi in Surry Hills, I instantly reconnected with the home-cooked Vietnamese flavours I grew up with – not something I expected on a fast-gentrifying corner of the inner-city, of all places. The Coconut Tamarind Curry ($15), soaked up with a crusty baguette, reminded me of the crumb trails I’d leave throughout my grandma’s house when breaking chunks of bread to sponge up the ultra-spiced, coconut-thick goopiness and its wreckage trail of vegetables. The Che Choui ($9) activated a childhood blur of the endless times I’d dip my spoon through stewed-soft bananas, ripely sweet and near-dissolving, like sinking islands, in a sea of warm coconut cream and sago.
But if the menu sparks flashbacks, not everything about Mama’s Buoi is an express stop to the past. For instance, it doesn’t look anything like the low-key neighbourhood restaurants that were around when I was a kid, where having a tissue box on each table was probably seen as the height of flash and luxury. Not that you should issue demerit points because a souped-up Surry Hills translation of an ethnic eatery has something of an interior design budget (the fit-out by Giant looks brilliant, by the way – an eye-popping mural channels a Vietnamese mum asking her child, ‘do you love me?’; the high-concept shelving around the counter looks like a museum exhibit of an Asian supermarket).
Pick up your chopsticks and Mama’s Buoi comes across like a genuine translation of the meals that director (and “self-confessed Mama’s boy”) Bao Hoang grew up with. This is reflected not only in the food, but the personal commentary in the menu and the fact the family photos plastered throughout are real and not some cynical designer prop.
And while there are a lot of classic throwbacks and staples (rice paper rolls, hot pots, skewers, pho that’s gotten a gold-plated endorsement by Theresa of The Kawaii Kitchen), my favourite thing – the item that I pretty much speed-order whenever I get here – is the bracing Vermicelli Noodle Salad Bowl ($13-$14), which is packed with punchy herbs, pickled carrots, sprouts, fried onion flakes and thin rice noodles dressed in a lot of zing. I usually get mine with crunchy squares of fried tofu and mixed mushrooms, but Will rates the BBQ Chicken and Roast Pork & Crackling versions, too. And while it can get a little consistent (sometimes there’s no chilli, or too much; sometimes the dressing is dialled way back, and other times a total bowl bath), I still play the odds and more often than not, it’s one of my fave things to get for lunch.
Reading the back-story of Mama’s Buoi (which is also a Vietnamese wordplay on a type of grapefruit), it strikes me how much Bao Hoang’s experience echoes that of the immigrant families I grew up with (the 16-hour days working in the rag trade rings a particularly resonant bell). Yes, this is a very slick upgrade from traditional eateries, but that doesn’t make it suspect or illegitimate. And perhaps hearing that this joint is part of a franchise might automatically make some feel skeptical – like this is all a perfectly presented package-deal of ethnicity to be carbon-copied throughout – but I don’t see it that way at all. It reminds me of MissChu, in fact, which has brought its own twist to Vietnamese food, and still retains its one-of-a-kind appeal, even as its number of outlets climb and climb. (Although, to the places fancifying Viet food: can someone bring back those oversugared soy drinks of no nutritional benefit at all – the ones served in a tall glass full of ice cubes? Boy, as a kid, they were they delicious.)
Another favourite here is the Coconut and Lime Panna Cotta ($14), which gives the Italian dessert a tropical fruit shake-up, and infuses it with the bracing sweetness of ginger syrup. This is so obviously off-script, but I don’t have to overexplain how good it is. Try it if you get the chance.
Mama’s Buoi, 116 Devonshire St, Surry Hills NSW (02) 9281 9993, mamasbuoi.com.au. Outlets in Crows Nest and Darlinghurst to open soon.